Pandemic soccer

NEW RULES IN HIGH SCHOOL SOCCER will de-emphasize close contact among players like Woburn's Adam Flores who boxes out Burlington's Kasper McIninch during a Middlesex League boys soccer game from 2019. Locally, practices get underway beginning next Monday (Sept. 21) with games commencing Saturday, Oct. 3.

This year, every Middlesex League soccer team gets to play deep into November, not just the Winchester High girls.

Scheduling changes and rules of play are allowing school districts the go-ahead to let the boys’ and girls’ soccer seasons to take place this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the rule changes are no more throw-ins and no more corner kicks. Both will be treated as indirect kicks. Heading the ball as a tactic is no longer allowed, and goalies can not kick, punt or throw the ball beyond the midfield stripe.

The emphasis is on using your feet to move the ball, and that extends to the ball going out of bounds. That means no more ball boys or ball girls, and the reserve players who will now be chasing after stray balls are strongly encouraged to dribble the ball back to the bench or sideline.

“I understand why they’re in place and some of them make sense,” said Woburn girls’ coach Jenna Fralick. “I’m not thrilled our girls will be running upwards of 10 miles a game with a mask on, even though they’re outside and the game has already been significantly altered to limit contact.”

The 10-game season begins Oct. 3 and runs every Saturday for eight weeks, through Nov. 21. Two holiday games will be played on Columbus Day and Veterans Day.

Each game will be played in four 20-minute quarters, with two-minute breaks between the quarters to allow for mask relief and water intake. Halftime will be five minutes. Bench players will always have masks on.

There is also no tackling and no deliberate body contact with opposing players, a rule that would seem to benefit the faster and more skilled squads. Defensive-minded teams might be at a disadvantage this fall.

NEW CHALLENGES FOR TEAMS

Woburn boys coach Roy Gomes is already looking forward to the challenge of coaching his players on how to succeed within the new rules.

“The best thing is, I like that the boys can play,” he said. “No heading is the big thing. Taking away heading removes such a great and difficult skill from the game. It will make the 50/50 high balls more challenging to win and get used to not meeting at the high point. Now the high point will be your chest.

“No throw-ins takes away a good attacking weapon,” Gomes added. “Now it’s a pass in on the ground and offsides is on. With regular throw-ins, there’s no offsides. Corners are now indirect and no shoulder to shoulder, no tackling. It will take some getting used to.”

“It’s going to drastically change how we play the game,” said Fralick, speaking for the Tanner girls. “Woburn has always thrived on their physicality and we’ll have to adjust and be patient.”

The Woburn boys have been more skills oriented in recent years, so the new system could benefit them.

“Soccer at this level is a physical game and these aspects are a big part of defending and winning the ball,” said Gomes, of the rule changes. “At the same time I think the creative, skilled players will thrive with the less physicality being emphasized. I feel for our refs, it is a difficult game to officiate as it was and now to make them wear masks and ask them to keep up with the speed and refereeing no purposeful contact, heading etcetera, etcetera, will definitely be very tough. I think we’ll all learn and make it look like soccer in the end. But it may take a few games.”

Teams are only allowed to train three days a week, with no benches allowed and lots of sanitation of equipment and soccer balls.

“I’m just happy the girls are getting some semblance of a season because they need it, socially and emotionally,” said Fralick. “I’d rather play now with the changes than play in a ‘Fall II’ season that doesn’t seem feasible in New England weather, or that may never happen.”

“We are going through this process because it’s all about the kids,” said McGrath. “They have been out of school since March and this gives everyone a chance to get out of the house and play. Yes, the rules will make things different, but it’s a challenge for us as coaches, and it’s a challenge for the players. It’s an opportunity to teach and move on with the season.”

ONLY DIVISION GAMES

As far as the 10-game schedules go, each team will play another two times in a row, once at each team’s home field. For instance, Reading and Winchester play each other the first two weeks of the season.

There will be no team buses this season, part of the reason games will only be played on Saturdays and holidays, so that parents can drive their players to the game sites.

“Yes, we play the other Middlesex Liberty teams twice, so these will all be competitive games,” said Winchester girls’ coach Rick Emanuel. “Each one of those teams (minus Reading) made the tournament last year, and all but Woburn made it to their respective quarterfinals, and by the way, Woburn lost to Arlington. These are great programs.”

“I’m excited because I miss my boys, we should be three and a half weeks into the season by now,” said McGrath. “From a social/emotional side, these kids need to get out and have a chance to play.”

Winchester is coming off a season where both the boys and girls made it to the MIAA Div. 2 EMass final, with the boys winning their first Div. 2 title since 1987. It was also the first time both teams reached the state final in the same season since 1986.

The Sachem boys and girls teams had a chance to make it back again, especially the girls, who were looking for their third straight MIAA Div. 2 championship and third straight trip to the EMass final.

“It will be a very different season than what we’re used to, but we’re happy to at least be playing,” said Emanuel. “This is a special season for us with 17 returning players from last year’s team, 13 of whom are seniors. This is as close to family as a team can get, and we’re going to appreciate every minute we get to be together.”

Everyone is excited to put on their masks and get to work, in anticipation for the first Saturday in October.

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